BILLIE HOLIDAY: LADY IN SATIN (1958)
1) I'm A Fool To Want You; 2) For Heaven's Sake; 3) You Don't Know What Love Is; 4) I Get Along Without You Very Well; 5) For All We Know; 6) Violets For Your Furs; 7) You've Changed; 8) It's Easy To Remember; 9) But Beautiful; 10) Glad To Be Unhappy; 11) I'll Be Around; 12) The End Of A Love Affair.
It is a little ironic that Billie's final completed record was recorded for the very same label that hosted her original recordings — by early 1958, she was out of Verve and back on Columbia. Of course, by that time it was already impossible for Columbia to present her the same way they did in the 1930s, that is, lightweight jazz entertainment with a pinch of intelligence and a shot of individuality — Billie was so frail already that trying to rev her up would, at worst, have killed her, at best, have made her sound utterly ridiculous.
Instead, to celebrate this new re-beginning and try out something different, the entire album was recorded with strings — a full orchestra conducted by Ray Ellis. This was not the first time Billie was being backed that way: most of her Decca sessions included lush strings. But, odd enough, this seems to be her most well-known recording on which she has orchestral support — either because it happened to be her last record, or, maybe, because her voice was so thin and crackling, it's almost as if the orchestra were shining through it all the time. On her Decca records, the violins tend to stay in the background; here, Ray Ellis dominates the proceedings at least as much as the lady herself, perhaps more.
Lush orchestral backing was quite en vogue at the time for jazz singers and crooners (e. g. on Ella's Songbooks), and Billie herself never specifically preferred small combos to big bands — in fact, she seems to have had the time, before her death, to acknowledge Lady In Satin as her personal favorite. The arrangements themselves will probably fail to please those who are allergic to syrup: going very heavy on strings and very light on brass, adding a moody (if not to say «ghostly») background choir for most of the songs, conventional, predictable, and completely undistinguishable from each other. So will the songs — just a bunch of additional stuff from the Songbook, all of them new for Billie but still feeling as if she'd already sung them all before. Nothing too bluesy, nothing too jazzy, nothing too fast, almost everything lethargically slow. No highlights, no lowlights. In fact, why bother at all?
Well, for one thing, the whole album sounds like a testament. She was not explicitly dying yet (still had more than a year to go), but it is clear that all of the systems were failing, and this physical deterioration and pain somehow got... not «reflected» in the performance, but rather «converted» into the performance, if you can follow the difference. Her voice occasionally quivers as if in silent tears, but these are neither «real» tears nor «fake» tears, rather like a slightly mannered, theatrical take on suffering delivered by a genuinely suffering person. If this does not suffice to describe her performance, let me just state that the performance is simply unique — except it has to be listened to very closely (one or two songs at a time may be enough; there is no need to sit through the entire session if you do not feel like it), and your mind has to set the orchestra back a few feet to suck in all the pain. Pain, pain, pain. The Songbook was never really intended for that kind of pain — it's a wonder the whole thing worked in the end.
Note, though, that weak or strong, Billie never ever lost her knack at phrasing, her ability to place her own accents within each performance. This is why her voice, even at its crackliest and feeblest, still stands the test; complaints about her lack of singing power in these late years are useless, since, at this point, it was her weakness itself that gave her extra power, the kind of which she could never have twenty years earlier. It is a power to conjure pity, but «pity» as some sort of noble emotion, rather than just the gut feeling you get when bypassing a legless hobo. If it were the latter, we would just «pity» the lady — «oh God, she must have been in some real deep shit back then» — and forget Lady In Satin in favor of her earlier records (even the late-period Verve sessions sound like Ode To Joy in comparison to this). But there is this deep, weird attractive force here that elevates the record to genuine tragic status; and this, in a sense, almost makes Lady In Satin the most important album in her career — despite its numerous flaws, or, rather, due to these flaws.
Never make the mistake of making this your introduction to Billie (some of the «best-of» jazz lists I have seen were stupid enough to make it «the obligatory B. H. inclusion» instead of the much more diagnostic Commodore sessions), but never make the mistake of bypassing it, either, if you care at all about the reflection of pain in art. At a certain point, if you get into it pretty deep, Lady In Satin is almost terrifying. But there is probably no need to wind it up to that effect; Billie herself, always the icon of restraint and elegance, would probably not want us to judge it that way. She probably wouldn't say no to a simple thumbs up, though.
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